By Jeffrey Moyo
While many countries appear to have met the U.N. Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of halving the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water, rights activists say that African countries which have taken to installing prepaid water meters have rendered a blow to many poor people, making it hard for them to access water.
“The goal to ensure that everyone has access to clean water here in Africa faces a drawback as a number of African countries have resorted to using prepaid water meters, which certainly bar the poor from accessing the precious liquid,” Claris Madhuku, director of the Platform for Youth Development, a Zimbabwean democracy lobby group, said
Prepaid water meters work in such a way that if a person cannot pay in advance, he or she will be unable to access water.
As a result, African rights activists like award-winning Terry Mutsvanga from Zimbabwe and other civil society organisations are against the idea of prepaid water meters.
“If one has to pay upfront before accessing water, then it would mean those in most need would be denied access,” Mutsvanga explained, adding that water is a global human right.
Mutsvanga was echoing the United Nations General Assembly which, in July 2010, emerged with a binding resolution on the human right to water and sanitation – but for Africa, the human right to water may be far from reality.
Laden with a population of approximately 1.1 billion, Africa’s 300 million people have no access to safe drinking water, according to the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP).
Many rights activists on the continent attribute Africa’s mounting water challenges partly to the advent of prepaid water meters.
“We already have hundreds of millions of people without access to clean water, and imagine the severity of the water challenge if water prepaid meters would reach everyone on the continent,” Mutsvanga said.
Over the years, prepaid water meters have been widely used in African countries like Namibia, Nigeria, Swaziland and Tanzania, as well as South Africa, where the meters which were rolled out in 1999 are currently in low-income areas.
Zimbabwe is currently conducting a pilot project aimed at installing the prepaid water meters, in towns and cities to begin with. And the country’s impoverished urban dwellers like 51-year old Tinago Chikasha are in panic mode, fearing the worst may be coming their way.
“Local authorities are pressing ahead with the idea of prepaid water meters, but jobless people like me have no money to make prepayments for water while we already have unpaid water bills running into thousands of dollars, which local authorities say they will deduct through all future water prepayments, meaning we run into the danger of having dry water taps for as long as we owe local authorities,” said Chikasha.
In non-African countries like the United Kingdom, prepaid water meters are no longer being used after they were declared illegal in 1998 for public health reasons.
They were also abandoned in South Africa at one stage following a massive cholera outbreak, but were reintroduced and have replaced previously free communal standpipes in rural townships.
Despite U.N. recognition that water is a human right, international financial institutions such as the World Bank argue that water should be allocated through market mechanisms to allow for full cost recovery from users, and civil society activists like Melusi Khumalo in South Africa blame capitalist tendencies for necessitating the advent of prepaid water meters.
“Prepaid water meters are a result of such negative policies by institutions like the World Bank and they [prepaid water meters] deny water access to those in most need,” Khumalo, who is affiliated to Parktown North Residents’ Association in Johannesburg, told IPS.
In Zimbabwe, Mfundo Mlilo, chief executive officer of Combined Harare Residents’ Association (CHRA), told IPS: “We are vehemently against the prepaid meter project because it will not solve the problems of water delivery, and these prepaid water meters will not lead to residents receiving adequate safe and clean water, while the same prepaid water meters will also not lead to increase in revenue flows as the City [of Harare] claims.”
Last month, Harare’s Town Clerk Tendai Mahachi was reported by Zimbabwe’s Weekend Post as saying: “With these meters we expect roughly to save about 20-30 percent of the current costs we are incurring.”
According to Mahachi, at least 300 000 households in the Zimbabwean capital are scheduled to have prepaid water meters installed, while all new housing projects will be obliged to install meters.
Meanwhile, with prepaid water meters set to rake in big money for some of Africa’s local authorities, there are those like Nathan Jamela, an urban dweller in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city, who fear the health consequences.
“We experienced the worst cholera outbreak in 2008, and we fear that if prepaid water meters are installed in every household here we will slide back to the crisis, with many people unable to afford to pay for water,” said Jamela